"Mrs. Packard": Using It or Losing It?

Olivia D'Ambrosio in and as "Mrs. Packard"
(photo: Mark J. Franklin)

Bridge Repertory Theater has the much deserved reputation of presenting unusual and provocative plays in the four years of their existence, and this remains true with their latest production Mrs. Packard in their new home at the Multicultural Arts Center in East Cambridge. The play is based on a relatively unknown but important true story of a woman whose place in feminist history should by all accounts be on a par with the suffragettes who secured the vote for women in this country. Playwright Emily Mann's mission was to celebrate this overlooked heroine and establish her rightful place in that history (or herstory). In this co-production by Bridge Rep and Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company, she has successfully managed just that, even though the result is less drama than polemic. Her 2007 work takes the true tale of Elizabeth Packard (referred to by everyone in the play, including her husband, with her more formal title rather than her first name) who was institutionalized in an insane asylum for the unforgivable crime of questioning her Calvinist preacher husband's beliefs in public. While difficult to believe today, in 1851 the State of Illinois passed a law that enabled a husband to have his spouse “entered or detained in the hospital on the request of the husband...without the evidence of insanity required in other cases”. The play is set in the State of Illinois from 1861 to 1864, the years of Mrs. Packer's virtual imprisonment.

In the title role, Bridge Rep's Producing Artistic Director Olivia D'Ambrosio creates a stunning character who dominates the play with the extraordinary breadth of her performance, perhaps even beyond the playwright's words. It's easily D'Ambrosio's most memorable work, as she navigates the perilous tightrope between proving her sanity while not relinquishing her own integrity. The task is made difficult, seemingly impossible, by the insidiously corrupt role of Dr. McFarland (superbly portrayed by Producing Artistic Director of Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company, Joseph W. Rodriguez) and the unbending rigidity of her husband Theophilus Packer (Steven Barkhimer). In the asylum she finds herself in the company of other women equally sane, and a staff that ranges from brutal, as in the case of Mrs. Bonner (Annabel Capper), to the more humane, as in the case of Mrs. Tenney (Shanae Burch). Only after several years does the opportunity to convince others of her sanity arise, in the person of Asylum Board Member Mr. Blackman (Matthew Zahnzinger), who perceives in her the passion that was incorrectly viewed as insanity, and her using of reason as opposed to losing it. The entire cast of eighteen is uniformly brilliant. It should be noted that Burch in particular creates a very believable character with more humanity than might be expected; the same could be said for Zahnzinger, who provides yet another meticulously crafted role in a varied career. When Mrs. Parker is finally freed, after initially being held as a prisoner in her own home, and finally publicly cleared, she resolves to do all in her power to use her restored freedom to do good for others in similar situations.

And so she did, with her subsequent books that exposed the deplorable conditions in the era's institutions. She continued to be an outspoken champion not just for women's rights in this country but also for reform of those same institutions for the “mentally ill”. This production, ably directed by Emily Ranii, with clever use of the space by Scenic Designer Jon Savage and Lighting Designer E. D. Intemann, as well as appropriate Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl, is another memorable collaboration by the estimable Bridge Rep in its relatively brief existence.

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